What drives the new President? What are the personal values informing his public actions? What in his words reveal the character and judgement on which his performance will rest? Barack Obama is fairly accomplished in the business of explaining himself. He did this not only in his books but even now in office through the tireless campaigning and touring by which he hopes to reach the people and gain a popular consensus for his policies against opposition from some members of Congress. In these campaign trail speeches, as in his books, the narrative style is frequently confessional and testimonial, disarmingly personal, even as he engages matters of national consequence about which others may be differently persuaded.
He is a significant ‘first’ – the first elected non-white ruler of a modern white-majority democratic state. In the world of significant firsts identity is supremely important – who are you, where are you from, what are you believes; even what kind of pet do you own? That scrutiny begins with your name. What you are called can reveal what past you have had, what baggage you might carry into the future. In some ways, Dreams from My Father, is about the ambitious politician, Barack Obama, getting more acquainted with his unusual names, so he could respond better to those who had simplified him as ‘Barry’, and others of his later political experience who would find out that he was also ‘Hussein’, an Islamic middle name he rarely used but was repeatedly defined by in the politics of America.
He did not really know his father, whom he refers to as “the Old Man” in Dreams. The Old Man had children in Africa before meeting Ann, Barack’s mother, in America, and he would later leave both mother and child, returning to Kenya with Ruth, another American woman. Later, Roy and Auma, the Old Man’s older children in Africa would later come to America and meet their brother, Barack. The young Barack was mostly left in the care of his mother’s parents, Gramps and Toots, and Ann would further complicate her young son’s story by marrying Lolo, an Indonesian, taking Barack along to live with her for a period of that life outside the United
This personal story, which the call from Kenya challenged him to unravel, was webbed together by a complex matrix of names and his father, the elusive Old Man of the story, was the central character. Obama attempts to make meaning of these names, hoping, if possible, to rediscover a lost paternal relationship so that he could properly locate and understand himself. He would travel to Kenya for this purpose, egged on by African-American friends in Chicago. But on the way is uncertain about his place in their imagined Africa, or the place of Africa in him: “For them, as for me, Africa had become an idea rather than an actual place… With the benefit of distance, we engaged Africa in a selective embrace – the same sort of embrace I’d once offered the Old Man. What would happen once I relinquished that distance?” Was Africa, land of the Old Man, and in a sense, land of Obama’s own beginnings, really the ‘missing link’, the truth that might complete and set him free from the emptiness within? Obama confronts this question and provides a classic exilic response latent with dislocation and ambiguity: “It was nice to believe that the truth would somehow set me free. But what if that was wrong? What if the truth only disappointed, and my father’s death meant nothing, and his leaving me behind meant nothing, and the only tie that bound me to him, or to Africa, was a name, a blood type, or white people’s scorn?”
Kwame Appiah, who also writes from a mixed race and cosmopolitan experience, shares a similar ambiguous moment in his postcolonial text, In My Father’s House: “My father died… His funeral was an occasion for strengthening and reaffirming the ties that bind me to Ghana and “my father’s house” and, at the same time, for straining my allegiances… perhaps, even tearing them beyond repair”.
At the core of Obama’s quest for meaning and significance are his feelings of otherness. He has had to deal with the pressures of being the outsider – the black other, nominal African, marginal American, abandoned child. Dreams is as much about getting to know his mostly absent father as it is about finding a happy median at which he might connect with all the constituent parts of his identity. He reveals by anecdotes the extent of his unfulfilling attempts to engage the black and African heritage by which he is officially defined. In poor American black neighbourhoods there are young people shooting basketball hoops – and other things more lethal, who also feel this sense of separation from their communities. They seek to belong, become or signify in ways that only lead to prison for many. Obama’s journey from insignificance has been less subversive. It would lead him differently to service as a Community Organiser, just wanting to make a difference or be the difference. It encouraged him along ambitious career and educational paths, including becoming the first black President of the Havard Law Review. It would also be the basis of his less than unquestioning commitment to the black church and the beginning of a difficult relationship with the Rev Jeremiah Wright, a one time father figure, and just about every other major African American leader (who see his electoral victory as an epochal moment in American race relations and expect change).
The struggle with displacement, and the pressure to fulfil one’s humanity by affecting or marking the time and place of one’s life is an abiding subject and feature of African American life and literature as is well illustrated by Ralph Ellison’s novel, Invisible Man. In the case of Obama it was a struggle exacerbated by an unsettled family history, leading to marked uncertainty in the processing of his thoughts and choices. He sought information but also fulfilment in literature, especially African American writing: “I gathered up books from the library – Baldwin, Ellison, Hughes, Wright, DuBois. At night I would close the door to my room… and there I would sit and wrestle with words, locked in suddenly desperate argument, trying to reconcile the world as I’d found it with the terms of my birth.” But not even his journey to Kenya, where he meets his paternal grandmother and learns more about his father and the people of his past, or his early interest in Malcolm X, totally fulfils him.
He returned from Kenya to marry Michelle. Dreams concludes on that happy note, with Obama celebrating a significant moment of rootedness, in the company of family or what was left of it. He is by this time demonstrating the disdain for parochialism he would more fully reveal in his second book, The Audacity of Hope. He observes with disapproval that his brother Roy, one of the wedding guests, was “prone to make lengthy pronouncements on the need for the black man to liberate himself from the poisoning influences of European culture”.
It is in The Audacity of Hope that his idea of “the common good” is discussed in greater detail. In this second book also the case for ‘Obamanomics’, a ‘bottoms-up’ approach to re-building the economy, is made. Obamanomics places primary trust and judicious investment in the productivity of workers and the middle class sectors of the economy. It seeks moderation, and critical distance, from the economic policies of Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, both of which had previously dominated partisan economic thinking in the bi-polar world of American party politics. In Obama’s view, a purist application of these approaches will no longer work in “this more competitive global environment”. He says to fellow Americans: “History should give us confidence that we don’t have to choose between an oppressive, government-run economy and a chaotic and unforgiving capitalism. It tells us that we can emerge from great economic upheavals stronger, not weaker”. There is virtue in consensus rather than division, and in the consideration of all possibilities: “Like those who came before us, we should be asking ourselves what mix of politics will lead to a dynamic free market and widespread economic security, entrepreneurial innovation and upward mobility. And we can be guided by Lincoln’s simple maxim: that we will do collectively, through our government, only those things that we cannot do as well or at all individually and privately. In other words, we should be guided by what works”.
Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream is the subtitle of this second book, which is a political commentary driven by anecdotes, reading in parts like another memoir. Obama engages his reader with the same visionary zeal that would mark his presidential campaign. He is for “a new kind of politics, one that can excavate and build upon those shared understandings that pull us together as Americans”. His subject in Hope is renewal of the American dream. He sees a yearning for change in America, a recognition that the “current political discourse unnecessarily divides”, and offers ways of grounding politics “in the notion of the common good”. But this vision is also sensitive to the severity of America’s divisive politics and fractured society. In eponymous-themed chapters dealing with political party affiliations (‘Republicans and Democrats’), the racial divide (‘Race’), the rich-poor gap and the American Dream (‘Opportunity’), and other subjects, he focuses on the many cracks in the American edifice, offering historical analyses and also writing his life into the narrative. He reaches out for solutions, with candour and considerable risk, across the divides of the American experience: “Even as we continue to defend affirmative action as a useful, if limited, tool to expand opportunity to underrepresented minorities… a plan for universal health-care coverage would do more to eliminate health disparities… than any race-specific programs… An emphasis on universal, as opposed to race-specific, programs isn’t just good policy; it’s also good politics”.
The President is of a generation of Americans born to the ‘baby boomers’. For many in his generation, and those even younger, there is a postmodern distrust for the parochial certainties and uncritical nationalism and parochial politics associated with older America. Younger Americans are less settled about their identity because of contemporary globalisation and transnational experiences in relationships, and travel.
These two books continue to sell handsomely all over the world, driven by the continuing interest in Obama’s remarkable odyssey. ‘Brand Obama’ continues to be a marketing phenomenon, and is now part of the public life and cultural landscape of the United States and beyond. The world media still thrive on it. His image is on merchandise and memorabilia. Some mothers in Africa, and elsewhere, have named their children after him. The words ‘honesty’, ‘frankness’, ‘openness’ and ‘genuine’ marked the early reviews of the books, and yet out there in the media and political world, for a long time, the question has been asked without any comforting answer: Who is the real Barack Obama? And: What does he really believe and whose side is he on? What will he do with the Presidency of the United States? Ironically the same difficulty Obama had in trying to piece his own father together has also been experienced by the former’s interlocutors.
“I can’t say I really knew him,” his sister Auma said of their father, in Dreams. “Maybe nobody did… not really… People only knew scraps and pieces…” In the view of his critics, Auma could have been referring to her brother, the President, and not their mutual father. This need to go beyond the veil and identify the “real” Barack Obama seemed, at least, a challenge for the Republicans at their convention in 2008. But the most entrenched suspicion and criticism of Obama has actually come from what might be considered his own constituency – liberals, African American intellectuals, some of the media and rights campaigners, who worked so hard to get him elected. Their conclusion in reading the actions of Obama is that he is not really the change they can believe in. Some traditionalists among his African American critics accuse him of projecting an unrealistic image of a post-racial America. Noam Chomsky, the acclaimed cultural theorist, has challenged Obama’s centrist positions and seeming wholesale purchase of the ideas and personnel of what he considers a discredited band of Washington political operatives who had served previous administrations. Chomsky is suspicious of any talk of change with such people in charge and let his views be known in a widely circulated speech, “What’s Next? The Elections, the Economy and the World”, later published in Democracy Now, 24 November 2008 at www.alternet.org/story/108964/.
But Chomsky has been wrong before about Obama and the possibility of change in America. He predicted that Obama would lose the presidential election because majority of Americans would baulk at the polls. But that change did come to America. Now even after several months of Americans living with that reality, and observing Obama at work critical suspicion of him remains. If anything his actions so far – of going farther than the right would like but not quite as far as his supporters on the left demand – has fuelled indignation and distrust on both sides of the American divide. The answer to – Who is the real Obama? – is not merely blowing in the wind, it is writ large in the subject’s own words; it is now also emphatically demonstrated in the pragmatic politics and moderate policies of his new administration, its inclination for engaging the enemy, indeed for possibly having no specific, permanent enemies. There is an ambiguity over identities as markers in decision-making regarding relationships and the determination of policy. The politician Obama has of course been taught the hard lesson that you cannot hope to lead America without at least some vocal accommodation of American ‘exceptionalism’ and nationalism (or ‘patriotism’ as Americans prefer to see it).
In the final analysis President Obama is who he says he is and not any of the characters others define, imagine or prefer him to be. The mind of the two books, Dreams and Hope, is cautious, culturally ambiguous and has no permanent political friends or enemies. He is black but also white. He is African and American, and upon closer ancestral study, even more than just the sum of both. He knows poverty from personal experience but is now comparatively rich. He is settled in family but is also a survivor with a long memory of a broken family and the compassion for victims to go with that. He is President Barack Husein Obama but somewhere in there is the neighbourhood all-American boy known simply as Barry, whose skill with a ball and the hoop is not to be sniffed at.
Afam Akeh, currently at Oxford Brookes University, in Oxford, UK, is a poet-journalist and former pastor. He is the Founding Editor of African Writing and author of Stolen Moments. A second collection of poems, Letter Home and Other Poems is forthcoming.
February 10, 2009
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